Sighting the high Himalayas

TODAY, WE WERE LUCKY. When we awoke at about 630 am, the sky was almost cloudless. There was no mist. We headed for breakfast at Bakers Café on MG Marg. We took a table by a window with a view of the hills that face Gangtok. To our great delight, we could see the snow covered slopes of Mount Kanchenjunga far beyond the nearer hills. Even though the great peak was partially obscured by clouds, we had managed to see it at last. Until 1853, this mountain was believed to be the highest on the planet. More accurate surveying showed it to be the third highest, K2 also known as Chhogori.

After breakfast, we strolled along MG Marg and then its continuation, New Market. At the far end of the latter, the hitherto fully built up thoroughfare began to be punctuated with greenery, trees and other plants.

After a short ascent, we reached the Ropeway station. It is the halfway point of s cable car service that runs from a much higher station to a far lower one. Currently, the service only runs from the midway station to the lowest one. We boarded one of the two red cable cars to make the descent. Unlike other cable cars I have been on, each cable car has its own cable instead of being on a continuous loop. When the car reaches a station, its driving cable reverses its direction of motion.

The views during the descent are dramatic. The usually tall buildings of Gangtok appear to have been built on step like terraces cut into the sides of the steep slopes of the terrain on which the city is situated. The cable car glides high above a winding road along which an unending stream of small local taxis flows. Looking left and right the tree covered hills surrounding the city offer exciting vistas. The return journey, the ascent, was less dramatic, but enjoyable nevertheless.

We dawdled back the way we had approached the cable car station, enjoying the warm sunshine. Many people were walking around including a significant number of police men and women carrying lathis and short sticks. Wearing berets and dark blue uniforms, they appeared to be milling around casually and without seeming menacing. Every now and then, we saw porters carrying what looked like heavy loads. They wear a thick padded strap over their foreheads. These straps are attached to cords that are tied around what is being carried on the porters’ backs. As they walk, the porters incline their heads slightly forward. This kind of portering looks like a tough way of earning a living.

The shops on MG Mar were open, but those lining the steps leading down to Lal Bazaar were shuttered up, closed. In Gangtok some businesses close on Thursday and others on Saturday. Today, it is Thursday. Fortunately, the excellent, albeit somewhat scruffy, Potala Restaurant in Lal Bazaar was open. I enjoyed a good number of delicately flavoured delicious beef filled steam momos.

After lunch we visited the Organic Market, which is housed in a curved gallery, one of the floors of the so-called Super Market, which is not a supermarket but a multi-storey covered market. Next, we strolled along some of the elevated pedestrian walkways that run above the National Highway, the main thoroughfare of Gangtok.

Before returning to our hotel, we stopped in a small café for beverages. It had a range of breads and pastries that equalled that you would expect to find in large European cities. This was not an isolated example. Gangtok abounds with well stocked bakeries.

The temperature had begun to drop when we reached our hotel, where we sttled down for a siesta.

PS We were fortunate to sight Kanchenjunga on the 28th November, the anniversary of the independence of Albania. Sadly, that country had just experienced a terrible earthquake.

Check the toilet!

One of my cousins in France gave me a useful tip.

He said that clean toilet facilities are often associated with satisfying restaurants. What he meant was that if the restaurant’s management took care of small details such as the toilets, it was likely that they would take care over the more savoury aspects of the business such as the food and customer care.

Since I was given that tip, I have noticed that there is a remarkably high correlation between my degree of satisfaction with the restaurant and the state of their ‘loos’.

Just desserts

Art of gelato_240

Not long ago, we visited a restaurant. To save it from being emabarassed, I will not mention its name or location. On its dessert menu, it had the following item: “Mango”. This was described as coconut ice cream with mango sorbet, topped with a single raspberry, a lychee, and a fruit sauce. 

One of our party wanted to try the “Mango” as described on the menu. A friend and myself wanted, if possible, a scoop or two of mango sorbet without the other trimmings. We asked one waitress if it would be possible to have the sorbet on its own. She went away to consult, but never returned.

After a while we asked a waiter, who appeared not to be fluent in English, whether we could have the mango sorbet solo. We asked him several times. He kept on replying:

“Strawberry?”

He appeared not to be able to distinguish the word ‘strawberry’ from ‘sorbet’.

Not willing to give up, we called the manager to repeat our wish. He told us that he would speak to the chef. He returned quickly and assured us that our wish would be granted.

The desserts arrived. The person who ordered the “Mango” as described on the menu received a lump of mango sorbet fused to a lump of coconut ice cream. This was topped with a single raspberry and a piece of frozen kiwi fruit, but not a lychee in sight. This was covered with a sweet red fruit sauce.

Those who had sought mango sorbet on its own, my friend and I, received not plain mango sorbet, but a deconstructed version of what was on the menu. The mango sorbet was fused to the coconut ice cream, and the other ingredients, including the frozen kiwi piece, were neatly arranged around the inseparable icecream and sorbet. The sauce was placed in a small dish.

Two things occurred to me later. First, the restaurant only had the mango sorbet inseparably fused to the coconut ice cream. Secondly, the restaurant had no idea how much to charge us had we been served the ice cream/sorbet without the trimmings.

To compensate for the delay and confusion, the manager provided us with an extra portion of the “Mango” dessert ‘on the house’. That would have been kind had the unasked for extra portion not appeared on our bill!

 

Learning the lingo: Italian

aerial photography of city

 

Until I was 16 years old, I accompanied my parents on annual holidays in Florence (Italy). We always stayed at the Pensione Burchianti, which was run by two ageing sisters. Almost every evening, we ate dinner in a nearby restaurant (the Buca Mario). This excerpt from my book CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME describes how I began to acquire some limited skill in speaking Italia. Here is the excerpt:

” … After dinner we would walk back to the Burchianti. It might have been during one of these evening strolls that my father came up with a new version of the saying ‘a penny for your thoughts’, namely: ‘a penne for your sauce’. The traffic in the streets would have quietened down by the time that we had eaten, and all of the traffic signals, or ‘robots’ as my South African parents called them, had flashing amber lights instead of the usual sequence of three coloured lamps. The pedestrian signals, which alternated between the red ‘Alt’ and the green ‘Avanti’ during the day, simply flashed both messages at the same time at night.

When we arrived back at the Burchianti, the residents, who had been eating supper, were usually still lingering at their tables. Many of them almost lived in the Burchianti. There was an elderly commendatore, who took all his meals there but slept elsewhere. There were also a number of business people who spent the week working in Florence, but resided some distance away in the weekend. They lived in the pensione during the week. One of these was a lady pharmacist from Parma who spoke Italian with a curious accent, rolling her ‘r’s in an exaggerated way.

On entering the dining room, we would be greeted like old friends, which I suppose we were. We would be invited to sit at the sisters’ table, and then I had to perform. One of the sisters would ask me in Italian what I had eaten for dinner, and I had to reply in Italian. Everyone listened to my reply which usually went something like this:
Primo piatto o mangiato spaghetti con pomodoro. Dopo o mangiato bistecca con patate fritte. E dopo, profiterole.”

It was not difficult to relate what I had eaten because every dinner I ordered the same thing or substituted lombatina di vitello (veal chop) for the bistecca. This nightly recitation gave me the confidence to try to speak in Italian, even if badly. When I did not know a word, I tried using a Latin word but pronounced it in a way that I believed made it sound Italian. Often, this worked! ...”

 

If you want to know whether Charlie Chaplin really did wave to me, grab a copy of my book from:

https://www.bookdepository.com/Charlie-Chaplin-Waved-Me-Adam-YAMEY/9781291845051

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OR Amazon or Kindle store

 

Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

Keep it clean

close up of menu

 

We entered a popular Thai restaurant, part of a chain, in London’s West Hampstead and waited for our friends to arrive. As they were taking a long time to reach us, we ordered some prawn crackers to quell our pangs of hunger. They arrived quickly with, much to my surprise, a couple of gooey dipping sauces.

The rather unfriendly waitress who delivered our snack, pushed our cheaply produced paper menus aside and said with an abrupt tone of voice:

“Don’t dirty the menus with the sauces.”

I was surprised. Never before in over sixty years of eating regularly in restaurants all over the world have I been asked, nay ordered, to keep the menu clean. I felt that this order to maintain the integrity of the menus to be unwelcome, unfriendly, and impolite.

After eating a revoltingly over sweet meal, I told the waitress about my disgust at her extraordinary instruction when she delivered the prawn crackers. She seemed unfazed by my complaint. I will never ever enter that restaurant again! 

 

Photo by Terje Sollie on Pexels.com

Would you trust them with your money?

Back in the early 1970s, I had dinner at a cheap and cheerful Chinese restaurant (Lido, which still exists in Gerrard Street) with about 7 friends. 5 of them were studying to be chartered accountants, I was completing my PhD thesis, and ‘J’ had only the most basic of educational qualifications.

The bill arrived. It was £24 for all that we had eaten. That seemed about right. The bill, consisting of three pages stapled together, was examined by all of us.

When J looked at it, she said it was twice what it should have been. This was because the waiter had added the sub totals at the bottom of each page to the individual prices which added together were equal to the sub totals.

We ended up sharing a corrected bill of £12.

What concerned me was that 5 people who were about to become chartered accountants missed the error in the bill which they had perused. Would you have trusted them with your money?

Incidentally, J went on to become a very successful business woman, probably more prosperous than anyone else sitting around that table in Lido.

Dining in Kerala

gecko

While eating our dinner one tropical evening in a lovely restaurant in Fort Cochin (Kerala, India), I looked up and noticed that high up on the wall overlooking us there was another diner, definitely not a vegetarian.

Clinging to the wall

An insect in its jaws:

A gecko stares at me

Claim your steak

STEAK

When I was much younger, my parents often took my sister and me to eat dinner in restaurants.

Before we looked at the menu, my late mother used to examine the plates and cutlery on our table. If there was a blemish on the cutlery or a crack or chip in the porcelain, the waiter would be summoned to replace the defective item(s). Often this delayed the arrival of any food. If we looked reproachfully at my mother, she would say:

“You can eat off cracked plates if you like, but I am not paying good money to eat off bad plates.”

She said this in such a way that meant that really there was no way that any of us could eat off damaged crockery, even if we wanted to.

As the years went by, I used to look at my plate and cutlery carefully as soon as we sat down. If I spotted a defect, I used to casually lay my hand on it so that my mother would not see it. I was always hungry before a meal and wanted to get on with it rather than having to wait for perfect eating utensils to be fetched. Once any defective cutlery/crockery was replaced, the meal could be ordered.

My mother was fond of beef steak. Rather unfashionably for London in the 1960s, she preferred her steak rare, almost what the French call ‘bleu’. This simple request was the real test for a restaurant. Frequently, the rare steak would arrive cold. My mother would then summon the waiter or maitre d’hote.

“My steak is cold.”

“Madame, I will ask the kitchen to heat it for you.”

The steak would then be returned, and my mother would begin cutting it. Soon the waiter would be called again.

“My steak is no longer rare; it is overcooked. Take it away and bring me another one cooked rare and warm.”

Any restaurant that could get this right without fuss, won my mother’s custom. She would then return there frequently.

Today, rare steak is the ‘in thing’. Most good chefs and discerning diners prefer the insides of steaks to be red, if not bloody.

Writing of steaks reminded me of Monty Modlyn (1921-94), a radio presenter and journalist. Occasionally he would speak on the early morning Today programme on the BBC Home Service (now ‘Radio 4’). He would report on steaks and other meat he had eaten. He had a metal ball that he would drop onto pieces of meat. The depth of the indentation made by the ball’s impact was his measure of the meat’s quality. It all sounded a bit mad to me when I listened to him when I was a young boy. Apparently, what he was doing was quite sound. The quality of raw meat can be judged by indenting it with a finger tip and then watching how quickly the indentation disappears. If the meat recovers quickly, then the quality is likely to be lower than if it recovers slowly.

Table for two…

I lived and practised dentistry in the Medway Towns (Chatham, Gillingham, and Rochester) for eleven years beginning in 1982. These towns in north Kent coalesce with each other to form a straggling urban belt along the right bank of the River Medway. When I lived in the area, there were many restaurants serving what was described as “Indian food”. Before reaching the area, Indian friends had helped me to appreciate what good Indian food should taste like. None of the many restaurants I tried in the Medway Towns ever provided Indian food that could be described as good. However, as there was not much else to do in the area when I first arrived there, before making friends locally, I sampled many of the eateries that served Indian food.

 

curry

 

One autumn evening, I entered a small establishment in Gillingham. I was its only customer for the duration of my meal. The restaurant was literally freezing cold, unheated. It was so cold that I ate my meal without removing my fleece filled anorak. Before the food arrived, the waiter placed a candle-powered plate warmer in the middle of the table to keep my dishes warm and another one in front of me to keep my plate warm while I was eating. The items, which I ordered, had the names of Indian dishes that I had tasted before. Sadly, none of them had any taste at all.

In another Indian restaurant that I visited one evening, I was not the only customer. There was a couple at another table within earshot. While I was eating, I could listen to my neighbours’ conversation. I remember nothing of the food I ate, but I do recall one small snatch of the other customers’ chatting. One of them said:

“… well, of course, you know, Gillingham is the armpit of Kent…”

having recently moved to the town, I was not happy to hear that.

There was an Indian restaurant close to the synagogue in Rochester. This place was slightly superior to the other Indian eateries in the area. One evening, while I was eating there, I was intrigued by the music being played through the establishment’s speaker system. Although I knew nothing about it then, I now realise that they were playing a soundtrack from a Bollywood film. I asked the waiter about the music. He answered:

“It is Indian music”

“I like it,” I told him, “where can you buy it?”

“We borrow the records from the public library, sir.”

Some months later, on a cold winter’s evening, I visited the restaurant near the synagogue with a female cousin and a male friend. We ordered a large meal and were served by only one Asian (Indian or of another sub-continental origin) waiter throughout. We were the only diners that evening. No one else entered the restaurant, even for take-away food. At the end of the meal, my friend went to the toilet. My cousin and I put on our winter coats and waited for him by the entrance door. Within a few seconds of reaching the door, the waiter, who had been serving us all night, came up to us and said:

“Table for two, is it?”

Either the waiter had not looked at us all evening, or all Europeans looked the same to him.

Spaghetti House

My parents loved coffee. In particular, they enjoyed drinking well-prepared Italian espresso coffee. Every Saturday morning when I was a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we used to drive to the car park by Jack Straws Castle, a pub near Whitestone Pond in Hampstead. Now, the pub no longer exists; it has been adapted to become a block of flats. The car park behind it, where we used to leave our car, still exists.

We used to walk down Heath Street, passing the open-air art exhibition if it was summer-time. Our first stop was a café housed within a building with a triangular floor plan, which still stands on the corner of Heath Street and Elm Row. The Pimpernel café/restaurant, which was run by Italians, no longer exists, but this is where my parents used to take their espresso coffee on Saturday mornings.

In those far-off days, espresso machines were not equipped with pre-set electronic controls as they are today. The person making the coffee had to pull down a leaver, which forced the hot water through the powdered coffee and into the cup waiting below it. The speed at which the leaver is pulled determines the rate at which the hot water flows through the coffee and the length of time that the water remains in contact with the coffee grains. These factors help affect the taste and quality of the final cup of espresso and are dependent on who operates the lever. Thus, using the manual espresso machines requires skill and experience. In my parents’ view those who worked at the Pimpernel had these skills. Whenever we visited this café, the kindly staff would give my sister and me a small matchbox sized piece of Italian nougat (‘torrone’). I remember that the piece of torrone was coated on two sides with thin edible rice paper. That there was paper which was edible really impressed my young mind.

There was another place, whose coffee gained my parents’ approval during the 1950s. This was the Bamboo Bar on Finchley Road in Golders Green. It was located under the Northern Line bridge which straddles Finchley Road close to Golders Green station and opposite a now disused covered walkway which was once an entrance to the station.

SPAG 2

Although the walkway and the Bamboo Bar have been closed for many decades, there is still an eatery in the same place, the popular Artista Italian restaurant. The latter is much larger than its predecessor.

SPAG 1

The walls of the Bamboo Bar were lined with bamboo. It was run by two Italian men, Lorenzo Fraquelli and Simone Lavarini. My parents, who both loved Italy and her people, enjoyed chatting with these fellows. In 1955, they opened the first branch of what was to become the now widespread, extensive chain of Spaghetti Houses.

As mentioned, the Bamboo Bar closed years ago. Sometime in the 1960s, another café, Bar Linda, opened next to the bus station at Golders Green. This souvenir of my childhood still survives and is thriving.

SPAG 3

One branch of the Spaghetti House chain made headline news in 1975. It was the branch, now closed, in Knightsbridge. This was the branch where managers of the various outlets of the chain would meet occasionally to deposit their takings before they were deposited in a nearby bank’s night-safe. On the days of the meetings, this restaurant was closed to the public. On Sunday 28th September, three armed men burst into the restaurant and demanded the takings that had been collected from the branch managers, who were meeting there. They bundled the managers in the basement. Luckily, one of the managers escaped and alerted the police, who arrived promptly.  The bandits held the managers hostage for three days before giving themselves up to the police. This event became known as the ‘Spaghetti House siege’. I am pleased to report that nothing remotely exciting as that has ever occurred during my years of visiting this restaurant chain.

SPAG 4

The first branch, which still exists, stands on the corner of Goodge Street and Whitefield Street (see picture above). When I was a young boy, my mother often treated me to a meal at this restaurant. We became quite familiar with the staff.

Many years later in 1970-71 during my first year as a BSc student at University College London (‘UCL’), I used to treat myself to lunch at the Goodge Street Spaghetti House. It was more expensive than the numerous canteens that were available on the UCL campus, but the food was far better. The ground floor of this multi-storey restaurant, like the Bamboo Bar, had walls covered with bamboo. This has long since been replaced by newer wall coverings.  Some of the waiters who were working at the Goodge Street Spaghetti House were getting on in age by the time I began my undergraduate studies. At least one of them used to greet me as she remembered me as a child. Not only had she worked at the Spaghetti House since its opening, but she told me that she had also been a waitress at the Bamboo Bar.

We still eat the occasional meals at various branches of the Spaghetti House chain. The food is usually of a good standard. A few years ago, I met a chap with whom I had been to school before 1960. I had not seen him since about 1971, and then only extremely briefly. We agreed to meet up at a Spaghetti House restaurant. He told me that he preferred meeting people on ‘neutral territory’ in places like restaurants, rather than in homes. Although he had aged quite a bit since we were both 8 years old, he was recognizable. Almost as soon as he met me, he said to me:

“Oh, I thought I was meeting someone else, not you.”